DARKEST HOUR (2017) – Gary Oldman Brings Winston Churchill to Life

0
darkesthour_garyoldman

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017)

It’s always darkest before the dawn.

And in England in May 1940, it sure was dark. The Nazis were poised to invade, and there seemed to be no viable solution other than surrender.

DARKEST HOUR (2017) chronicles Winston Churchill’s first few tumultuous days as England’s Prime Minister during this frightening time.

It’s the early days of World War II, and Hitler’s Nazi machine is stomping through Europe, and nations are falling like dominoes. The British leadership expresses zero confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) whose peace policies allowed Hitler to get this far undeterred. When Chamberlain is forced to resign, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is selected as his successor.

It’s a controversial choice as Churchill is not well-liked and is viewed with skepticism. He’s known to speak his mind, drinks daily, smokes a cigar, and is marred by his own controversial decision during World War I at Gallipoli which led to the deaths of thousands of troops. But he’s chosen for political purposes, as he’s the only candidate the opposition party would accept, or as he himself surmises, perhaps it’s his enemies’ way of getting back at him, putting him in power just as the nation is about to fall.

Churchill is under tremendous pressure. He views fighting back against Hitler as the only solution, and refuses to negotiate, but this position leaves him alone politically. Both Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the man who many believe should be prime minister, view surrender and a negotiated peace as the only hope for their nation, and they have the support of not only their party but of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) who admits that he finds Churchill rather “scary.”

And with the entire British army trapped at Dunkirk, with no reasonable way to escape, it appears they are correct, and that Churchill has no other option than to surrender to Hitler.  But as we know, this is not what happened.  Churchill ordered a civilian fleet of small ships to mobilize and rescue the soldiers, something that was so outlandish it almost wasn’t done, but it was done, and nearly every British soldier was saved that day.

How Churchill withstood the massive political pressure to give in and how he somehow managed to get England to fight back is the incredible story told in DARKEST HOUR. And it’s one of those stories where if it wasn’t true, you probably wouldn’t believe it.

The main reason to see DARKEST HOUR is Gary Oldman’s phenomenal performance as Winston Churchill.  It’s as good as advertised.

Sure, the make-up department outdoes itself by transforming Oldman into the portly aged Churchill, but Oldman’s performance goes way beyond make-up. He captures not only Churchill’s eccentric personality and signature gait, but the unbelievable stress and pressure on the man, Oldman makes palpable.  He’s so effective that I found myself getting stressed out, just thinking about what Churchill was going through.

He so much wanted to fight, knowing that surrender would mean the nation would be at the mercy of a monster, Hitler, and yet, his position was seen by those in power as irresponsible. He was seen as a warmonger, someone who would get lots of people killed, when surrender would be a better option that would save lives.  And militarily his hands were tied.  When he tries to rally the French, he learns that they’ve already been beaten.  His own army, the entire army, is trapped without hope of escape at Dunkirk.

Oldman captures all of this emotion and completely brings Winston Churchill to life.

And of course, working behind make-up is nothing new for Oldman, who has made a living looking different in most of the movies he has appeared in over the years.

The rest of the film is a bit uneven. While it’s certainly interesting, it doesn’t reach out and grab you until its final emotional reel. Unlike Oldman, who’s locked in from the get-go, the rest of the film takes a while to get going.

For three-fourths of this movie, things are dark, dreary, and depressing, and it’s not until late in the film when the clouds of doom begin to lift.  There are several key scenes which effectively highlight the changing tide.  When King George realizes that he actually admires Churchill’s tenacity, and in a private meeting, when he whispers to Churchill that he has had a change of heart, that now “you have my support,” it’s one of the most satisfying rousing emotional moments in the movie.

The private conversation between Churchill and his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), where she tells him that it’s because of his flaws and his experience dealing with them that’s he ready and able to deal with this impossible situation now is equally as powerful, as is the moment when Churchill learns that his young secretary Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) brother has died at Dunkirk, and he marvels at the bravery in her face when she tells him.

And my favorite scene in the film is where Churchill decides to ride the subway and talk to the people, gauging their thoughts and feelings about what to do about the inevitable Nazi invasion. And of course they tell him in no uncertain terms that they want to fight.

It’s moments like these where the script by Anthony McCarten comes alive. Earlier though, the story is much more low-key as it details the politics of Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister.  And that’s what DARKEST HOUR is mostly about, the politics of the time. The story of how Churchill would go on to lead England to victory is not told here.  This is the story of the days leading up to the time when Churchill would become that leader.   These political scenes never resonated as well with me as the more emotional moments later in the film.

This is the third film to come out in 2017 to deal with the battle of Dunkirk.  There was Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which happened to be my favorite film of 2017, and the comedy drama THEIR FINEST, which told the lighthearted story of the making of a propaganda film about Dunkirk to help encourage the United States to join the war effort.  Of these three films, DARKEST HOUR is probably the least emotionally satisfying.

Director Joe Wright captures the look of World War II England brilliantly. The cars, the costumes, the sets, all bring this moment of history to life.  In terms of an entire captivating package, however, as I’ve said, it takes a while to get going.

Oldman is helped by a solid cast.  I particularly enjoyed the two female performances here.  Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as Churchill’s wife Clemmie.  It’s Clemmie who’s constantly pushing her husband along, encouraging him when he’s consumed with self-doubt, and while at times it’s difficult to imagine her in love with such a cantankerous character like Churchill, the love they have for each other comes through loud and clear.

I liked Lily James just as much as Churchill’s very young secretary, Elizabeth Layton.  She seems to latch onto Churchill as a father or even grandfather figure, and she too constantly encourages him to continue to lead.

Stephen Dillane is particularly convincing as Viscount Halifax, seen here as the biggest thorn in Churchill’s side.  He’s the man who most in England wanted to be the new prime minister, and he knows it and wields his power accordingly.  He’s also the biggest proponent of peace talks, and it’s interesting because his take here is one that I think most rational people would agree with, while most would indeed view Churchill as a loose cannon.  It’s easy for us today to sympathize with Churchill because we know how cruel and crazy Hitler was, but back in 1940 the world didn’t know this. Halifax is also on the receiving end of Churchill’s memorable line in the movie, “Would you stop interrupting me when I’m interrupting you!!!”

Likewise, Ronald Pickup makes for a weary and worn Neville Chamberlain.  And Ben Mendelsohn, who STAR WARS fans saw last year as the villainous Orson Krennic in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016), is superb as King George VI.  He’s one of the few characters to change during the movie, at first seeing Churchill as a poor excuse for a leader, but later viewing the Prime Minister in a new light, when his own feelings of anger towards Hitler surface, and he suddenly wants a leader who’s willing to fight for his nation.

DARKEST HOUR is exactly what its title says it is: the darkest hour for all of Europe. It was a moment in history when the face of Europe was about to change, when a dictator was on the verge of conquering it all, and when the odds against this happening seemed so slim that the entire United Kingdom stood ready to surrender it all.  And yet, that’s not what happened, due in large part to the leadership and decisions of one man, Winston Churchill.

DARKEST HOUR tells the story of how that man survived his darkest hour to emerge as that rallying leader.

And Gary Oldman, through a remarkable performance, brings this unlikely savior to life.

—END—

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Christmas Monsters & Villains

1

 

 

rudolph_abominable snowman

Christmas can be a difficult time.

Whether it be dealing with all the shopping, spending money we simply don’t have, spending time with extended family, time that is far too extended, or perhaps spending time alone.  Whatever the reason, Christmas is not always the harbinger of joy for some folks.

For others, though, it’s a time to celebrate with family and friends, to enjoy family traditions, and to rest and relax.  And still for  others, it’s a time of religious reflection and significance.

For me, it’s a little bit of all of these things, except for the rest and relax part.  Of all the holidays, Christmas is the one I least associate with rest and relaxation.  It’s anything but. In short, it’s incredibly exhausting, and more often than not, stressful.

Regardless of where you fall on the Christmas meter, if there’s one thing that most of us can agree on, especially those of us who grew up watching all those Rankin Bass animated Christmas specials, is that they were always a highlight of the season.

So, let’s have a look at some Christmas monsters and villains, courtesy of Rankin Bass.

Here we go:

Professor Hinkle, FROSTY THE SNOWMAN (1969).

frosty_professor_hinkle

For my money, the most evil villain ever to appear in a Rankin Bass Christmas special was the dastardly Professor Hinkle, voiced by Billy De Wolfe.  Hinkle, that mad magician, was responsible for locking Frosty in that greenhouse, causing him to melt.  Yup, Hinkle killed Frosty!  Wow.  Talk about your demented movie villains!  Thankfully, this being a Christmas special, we learn that Frosty was made from Christmas snow, and thanks to some help from Santa Claus himself, he returns to life.  Phew!

 

Heat Miser & Snow Miser, THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (1974)

heat miser snow miser 2

Arguably the most famous of the Christmas Special villains, the Brothers Miser certainly own the best song/dance number. Say either name and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t break into song immediately.  “I’m Mister Snow Miser, I’m Mr. Snow.”

Snow Miser, voiced by Dick Shawn, and Heat Miser, voiced by George S. Irving, are by far the most memorable part of THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS.  And they remain villainous throughout, until the end, when they’re scolded by their mother, Mother Nature.

 

Winter Warlock, SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970)

santa-claus-is-comin-to-town-1970-winter-warlock

The Winter Warlock, voiced by the great Keenan Wynn, was such a strong presence in SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN, that he nearly gave me nightmares when I was a kid. Of course, he’s only a baddie for half the special, as later on Kris Kringle softens his heart and he joins the side of Santa and his friends.

 

The Abominable Snowman, RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964)

rudolph_abominable snowman christmas tree

 

By far, my favorite of the Christmas Special monsters and villains.  He’s so ferocious that he nearly eats Rudolph for dinner!  But thanks to a quick thinking Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius, he’s overpowered, and the young wannabe-dentist elf Hermey removes all his teeth, making him harmless, so harmless in fact that by the end of the story he’s helping decorate the massive Christmas tree at Santa’s house.

And while this is certainly a happy ending, I’m not so sure it’s so happy for Mr. Abominable Snowman.  I think Hermey went a bit too far.  Pulling all his teeth?  Jeesh!

Anyway, at least he survived the fall off the cliff, and that’s because— “Bumbles bounce!”

Okay, that’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed this look at Christmas specials’ monsters and villains.

Have a monstrous Christmas, everybody!

—Michael

 

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) – Energetic, Joyful Musical Difficult to Dislike

1
greatest showman

Hugh Jackman is P.T. Barnum, the greatest showman.

While THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) is not as good as last year’s sensational LA LA LAND (2016), it does boast the same songwriting tandem of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won an Academy Award for their work on LA LA LAND and who are back at it again here with eleven new songs for THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.

For this reason alone, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is worth a trip to the theater, but that’s not all.  There’s a lot to like about this new musical.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN tells the story of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) beginning when he was a young boy living in poverty and highlighting his budding friendship with a wealthy young girl named Charity.  As adults, they fall in love and get married, and Barnum promises Charity (Michelle Williams) the life she always wanted, and the way he believes he can do that is by entertaining others.

He opens up a Barnum wax museum but finds he can hardly sell a ticket.  When his young daughters tell him no one comes to the museum because there’s nothing alive inside, he remembers a time from his childhood when he was offered an apple by one of the street people, a person with a facial deformity, and he gets the idea that if his museum featured these types of folks, people would come because they want to see the bizarre and the unusual.

So, Barnum goes out and assembles a large group of the strange and unusual, and while these folks are admittedly nervous and wary about being laughed at and exploited, they soon realize that Barnum has their best interests at heart.  Eventually, they become a very close-knit family.

When a major newspaper critic slams the museum as a “circus,” Barnum embraces the criticisms and uses them to promote his show more, even going so far as to change the name from Barnum’s Museum to Barnum’s Circus.  The show is a huge hit, fueled by Barnum’s unceasing enthusiasm and energy, but it’s not without obstacles, as there are violent protests by locals who declare that the “freaks” should not be seen.  And when a major scandal involving Barnum himself erupts, things hit rock bottom.  But the show must go on, and against all odds, it does.

There are two main themes on display in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, and both work well. The first is the power of imagination.  Time and time again, we see Barnum start with nothing but an idea, one that he’s not afraid to pursue, and when he does, the ideas become reality.   The theme that one is only limited by one’s imagination or lack thereof, that if you can think it, you can do it, really resonates.  Barnum is presented as a man full of imagination, while the naysayers around him are seen a close-minded “realists.”

The other theme is inclusion and acceptance.  Barnum is viewed as a hero to the eclectic group of outcasts he has assembled, as someone who gave them a platform.  For the first time in their lives, they are accepted and loved, and for many of them it’s the first time they are truly happy.  The circus is not presented here as a place that exploited them, but rather as their home.  Furthermore, it gave them a livable wage.

Still, things aren’t perfect.  When Barnum promotes the famous European singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and brings her to New York to perform in the U.S. for the first time, he is uncomfortable about having his circus “cast” appear among this high-class New York audience and does his best to hide them out of view, much to their chagrin.

And when junior partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) falls in love with trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) who is black, he finds that being seen with her in public is still something he’s not able to do, in spite of his feelings for her.

The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon delivers some solid storytelling. The characters aren’t always fleshed out as well as they could be, and sometimes moments of adversity are overcome in the blink of an eye, striking at the story’s credibility, but for the most part the storytelling here is commendable. Writer Bill Condon also directed another musical I really liked this year, Disney’s live action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).

Of course, the biggest reason to see any musical is the music, and I really enjoyed both the songs and the music score.  While not as memorable as their songs for LA LA LAND, the work here by lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is still quite enjoyable.  I found the music rousing and the lyrics poignant.  Some may have trouble with the modernized pop-like score, instead of something more fitting for the 1800s time period, but I liked it just fine.

Hugh Jackman is a natural fit in the role of P.T. Barnum.  It’s his first film musical role since LES MISERABLES (2012). and while his work here as Barnum isn’t as impressive as his work as Jean Valjean, it’s still quite satisfying and enjoyable.  He makes Barnum believable as a man who simply wanted to entertain others and be able to support his wife and two daughters. He effortlessly performs the ambitious song and dance numbers, and easily carries this movie on his back.  He provides a strong likable presence from beginning to end.

As Barnum’s wife Charity, Michelle Williams doesn’t fare as well.   Williams is an outstanding actress, even in small roles, as made evident by her phenomenal supporting performance in last year’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016),  a role that earned her an Oscar nomination.  Here, she plays second fiddle to Jackman’s Barnum throughout.  The dutiful wife, Charity remains loyal to the end, but as a role for Michelle Williams, there’s hardly anything for her to do, even though she receives second billing here. William’s lack of relevant screen time was probably my least favorite part of this movie.

Zac Efron makes for a likable Phillip Carlyle, the man who works his way up to becoming Barnum’s business partner.

Rebecca Ferguson plays singer Jenny Lind with mixed results.  I like Ferguson a lot, and we just saw her in the thriller THE SNOWMAN (2017) with Michael Fassbender, as well as in the science fiction thriller LIFE (2017). Here as famed singer Jenny Lind, Ferguson possesses a strong presence in her dramatic scenes, but she’s not quite as natural with the song numbers, and since she’s supposed to be the greatest singer in the world at the time, this is slightly problematic.

On the other hand, Zendaya is absolutely mesmerizing as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her when she was onscreen, and it’s a meaty role.  She is constantly dealing with racism, and life for her is a battle.  We catch glimpses of it through the struggles she faces in her own relationship with Phillip.

She delivers one of the best performance in the movie, and she’s certainly in one of the most dynamic scenes in the film, an intense rapid-fire musical number with Zac Efron in which she also performs on the trapeze.  The speed with which this number moves is really impressive.  Supposedly, Zendaya did all her own trapeze stunts in the film.

I really enjoyed Zendaya earlier this year for her work in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), but I think her work here in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is even better.

Keala Settle also stands out as Letti Lutz, the “bearded lady,” as does Sam Humphrey as the diminutive Tom Thumb.

And Paul Sparks is memorable as critic James Gordon Bennett, the man who is relentless in his criticism of Barnum and his show.  He and Jackman share some memorable scenes, especially as they discuss their philosophies as to what constitutes art and entertainment.  Bennett doesn’t see Barnum’s show as even being close to art, yet he can’t deny that the audiences love it, while Barnum views Bennett as being shallow and close-minded, or as he says “an art critic who can’t find joy in art.”  Sparks has been playing author Thomas Yates on Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS (2015-2017), and he plays a similar role here as critic Bennett.

First time director Michael Gracey does a nice job here.  He imbues the film with nonstop energy.  The dance numbers are in-your-face rousing and the songs inspirational.  The pacing is also good.  The movie’s one hour and 45 minute running time flies by fast.

Again, I would have enjoyed more character development, and I would have preferred it had some of the obstacles in which the characters faced here took more grit and resolve to solve.  As things stand, everything gets wrapped up in a neat tidy package.  Even the ultra-optimisitic LA LA LAND threw us a curve at the end.

Also, the CGI-created animals here, the elephants and lions, look pretty darn fake.

But these are small concerns.  The film stands on its music and dance numbers, and on these notes, it doesn’t disappoint.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN might not be the greatest musical ever made, and it might not give us an honest look at P. T. Barnum, who is seen here in nothing short of a one-sided positive light, but it is a highly imaginative energetic musical full of songs that will make you want to get up and dance.  In short, it’s generous with its joy, and you’d be hard-pressed not to leave the theater happier than when you came in.

P. T. Barnum would approve.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

Luke Skywalker is Back in Action in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

0

starwars_thelastjedi_poster“““““`1

At long last, Luke Skywalker speaks!

As much as I liked STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015),  I was left disappointed by the fact that after characters spent the entire film searching for the elusive Luke Skywalker, he shows up for a mere half-second in the final reel and doesn’t utter a word.

Hey, it’s Luke Skywalker!  Cue end credits.

So, for me, the thing I was most looking forward to about STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017), the latest chapter in the STAR WARS saga, was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action. And since he finally gets to speak some dialogue and then some, his presence here was easily my favorite part of the movie.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI picks up immediately where its predecessor, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) left off.  And so we find the Resistance fighters led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) battling the evil First Order led by Leia’s and the now deceased Han Solo’s son Ben, who goes by the bad-guy moniker Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  Yup, you might say the current STAR WARS battles are more of a domestic dispute!

Actually, the villain who is calling the shots is the supremely evil Snoke (Andy Serkis), as Kylo Ren works for him, but any acute viewer can spot the writing on the wall a mile away, that the real villain in this new trilogy is no doubt the conflicted Kylo Ren.

Things are not looking good for our merry band of Resistance fighters.  They are outgunned and outmanned by the superior First Order forces, even with the presence of young new heroes Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

And so it’s up to young Rey (Daisy Ridley) to convince the Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to come out of retirement and help their cause, which is no easy task since Luke is a cranky old man now, disillusioned with the world, and he wants no part in any more of its conflicts.

It takes old friend R2D2 to point out that years earlier it was another old Jedi who was asked to help the cause, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Kenobi said yes.  And when Luke still hesitates, the spirit of Yoda arrives to set him straight.

In spite of the box office records that STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is currently setting, the film really is a mixed bag.

For me, the best part of this film was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action on the big screen. His scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Just as interesting are the scenes with newcomer Rey (Daisy Ridley).  Her scenes with Luke resonate.  As she tries to convince Luke to join the Resistance, she’s also trying to learn more about who she is, and just why it is that the Force is so strong with her.

And as much as I enjoyed Luke in this movie, and most of this is due in large part ot Mark Hamill’s performance, the two most interesting characters in the film are Rey and villain Kylo Ren. As Rey searches for answers to her identity, she becomes increasingly connected to Kylo Ren, as their strength with the Force allows them to communicate with each over vast distances, and each wants to convert the other. Rey wants to turn Kylo Ren from the Dark Side, while Kylo Ren wants Rey to join him in his ambitious plot to pretty much take over the galaxy.

And Kylo Ren is also connected to Luke Skywalker, since Luke had tried to train his nephew years earlier, but failed when Ren turned to the Dark Side.

Kylo Ren is a very interesting character, with some pretty neat conflicts.  He sees himself as the next Darth Vader, but he continually falls short, and part of this is he’s the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, and their connection is also strong with him.  Yet, to shut them down, he murdered his own father in the last movie, and this time around he promises the same fate to his uncle, Luke Skywalker.

All these parts of the movie work and work well, and the good news is these three characters do make up the bigger portion of this movie.  However, the other stories, the ones involving the Resistance led by Leia, and featuring subplots with Finn and Poe Dameron, pretty much fall flat.  They suffer largely from a “been there, done that” situation. We’ve been down this road before in previous STAR WARS films.

The First Order’s pursuit of the small Resistance fleet which takes up the entire movie is rather boring, and the smaller plot where Finn and Poe try to incapacitate the Rebel ship chasing them is rather redundant and could have appeared in any STAR WARS movie.

I found myself only interested in the story which featured the triangle of Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, known for his science fiction thriller LOOPER (2012) starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a film I liked a lot, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI looks as amazing as you would expect.  The special effects are all top-notch, and it does contain some decent scenes.  When Luke and Kylo Ren finally face each other, the moment is up there with some of the most dramatic and memorable scenes in the series.

But running at 152 minutes, making it the longest STAR WARS movie, it does tend to be a bit overlong and does struggle somewhat with the pacing.  Let’s put it this way.  It felt like 152 minutes.

It was great seeing Mark Hamill back on the big screen as Luke Skywalker.  Hamill is a very good actor who has been missed in the movies over the years, as his career took a different path which saw him do more voice-over roles in animated features.  For those of us who grew up watching young Luke Skywalker take on the Death Star and eventually become a Jedi to confront his own father Darth Vader, it’s a special experience to watch him here as an older man once again drawn into another conflict, but this time as the older, wiser force. If there’s any downside here, it’s that the film doesn’t include enough Luke Skywalker.

That being said, both Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are strong enough performers that they appear more than up to the task to take on the next movie on their own. I like Daisy Ridley a lot, and I enjoyed her here every bit as much as I enjoyed Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.

I was lukewarm to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in the previous movie, but he really has grown into the role, and he’s much more of a formidable presence here.  Even better, his inner conflict does not appear forced, and so he’s that rare villain who isn’t just flat-out dark and evil. It’s a neat performance.  He also gets rid of his silly mask in this movie, and that’s definitely a plus.

The rest of the actors are all okay. Of course, Carrie Fisher passed away shortly after filming her scenes for this one.  She’s fine here as Leia, but honestly, the character doesn’t fare as well as Luke Skywalker does in this movie or as Han Solo did in the last.  She’s simply not as interesting a character, nor does she have a whole lot to do in either film.  Still, it was sad to watch her in this film, knowing that in real life, she’s gone, and the character will not appear again.

Both John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron are fine in their roles, but they’re stuck in storylines that aren’t so interesting.

Andy Serkis is on hand doing what does best, performing as a CGI/motion capture character, this time playing the villain Snoke, and when he’s on-screen he’s sufficiently menacing, but he’s not onscreen all that much.  I enjoyed Kelly Marie Tran as newcomer Rose Tico, who helps Finn here, and it was also fun to see Domhnall Gleeson return as General Hux, who constantly operates in the shadow of the bigger evil villains.

And the amazing John Williams returns once again to score yet another STAR WARS movie, and once more, the music is excellent.

The screenplay by director Johnson is okay.  Again, the Luke/Rey/Kylo Ren arc is the best part, while the rest seems like a rehash of previous STAR WARS movies.

Also, in general, the whole conflict in these “star wars” just isn’t all that interesting.  In fact, it’s pretty darn boring because the writing in these films has never been good enough to spark interest in its larger universe.  The best stories have been the small ones, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, Vader’s conflict between the Dark Side and the good, and here the conflicts with Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke.

Whenever the stories revert to the larger conflict at hand, which is what a lot of the second trilogy did and is largely why those three films were so lifeless, the tales fall flat. I don’t really care about the Rebellion, or the Resistance, or the politics of these worlds because, again, the writing has never been good enough to make me care.

So, every time characters and events in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI dealt with the ongoing conflict between the First Order and the Resistance, I yawned, but when it focused on the very specific conflicts between Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker, I was all in.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI will not be the last STAR WARS movie, but with Rey and Kylo Ren poised as the future of the STAR WARS universe, it may be the last one to look so keenly on its past.

—END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

Movie Lists: The STAR WARS movies

0

 

Empire Strikes Back poster

Welcome back to the MOVIE LIST column, where we look at lists pertaining to the movies.

Up today, the STAR WARS franchise.  Yep, with the latest STAR WARS film STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) set to hit theaters today, December 14, 2017, here’s a look at how the previous films in the series rank:

  1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

For my money, this first STAR WARS sequel is the best of the lot.  Following upon the heels of the original, EMPIRE is darker, bolder, and more innovative and exciting than its predecessor. All three leads- Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher grew into their roles here, and much more is revealed about one of the screen’s greatest villains, Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones providing the voice).  John Williams’ iconic Darth Vader theme, the Imperial March, is introduced here, making it hard to believe it didn’t exist in the first movie.

In a brilliant stroke, to keep things fresh, George Lucas stepped out of the director’s chair in favor of Irvin Kershner, something Lucas would stumble over in the second trilogy with his ill-fated decision to direct all three films.  EMPIRE also has the best script in the series, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.  Before ROGUE ONE came along, EMPIRE had the darkest ending in the series, with its now infamous reveal about the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Also the film that introduced Yoda.

Star Wars poster

2. STAR WARS (1977)

The movie that started it all.  I still remember when this one first hit the theaters, back in the summer of 1977.  When I saw this on the big screen that summer at the age of 13, I was blown away. Having grown up watching STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE on TV, I had never seen such amazing special effects before.

Instantly drawn into the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, I was along for the ride from the get-go, and I still haven’t forgotten the awe and wonder I felt entering the strange alien worlds and spaceship of this ultra imaginative movie.  Also featured my all-time favorite actor, Peter Cushing, playing the villain, Grand Moff Tarkin, which gave me the second opportunity to see Cushing on the big screen, the first being the inferior Amicus adventure AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976).

Rousing iconic score by John Williams, and brilliant directing by George Lucas make this one a classic for the ages.  It’s now called STAR WARS: EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE to fit in with the entire trilogy, but back in the day when it first came out, it was just STAR WARS, and rightly so.

3. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

After a sub par and inferior second trilogy, STAR WARS returned to the top with this energetic and exciting new entry by writer/director J.J. Abrams, who earlier achieved similar success with his excellent STAR TREK reboots.  The spirit of STAR WARS seemed to be missing in the previous trilogy, but it’s back and stronger than ever here.

With the return of familiar characters like Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia, and newcomers like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), this sequel which takes place thirty years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, completely recaptures the magic of the original STAR WARS movies.  My only gripe is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) doesn’t appear until the very end.

rogue one poster

4. ROGUE ONE – A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

The first stand-alone STAR WARS movie was a mixed bag for me the first time around.  I thought the film did a poor job with character development which was a major deal here since the film contains nearly all new characters.  But I liked this one much better upon a second viewing.  Its story, the tale of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans used by Luke Skywalker and the rebels in the original STAR WARS film, is a good one, and it even addresses the long-standing joke of how inept the Empire must have been to have built the Death Star with a glaring weakness that the rebels could expose so easily.  ROGUE ONE makes it clear that this supposed weakness was not by accident.

Excellent storytelling gets better as the movie goes along as it moves towards its powerhouse finale, the darkest by far in the entire series.  Also notable for its sometimes impressive CGI re-creation of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin.  On the big screen, I thought he looked cartoonish, but at home on my TV screen he looked a bit more genuine.

 

5. STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I am really not a fan of this second series, but I do like the third and final film in which we learn how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.  Part of the problem with this series is it’s a prequel. Another part is that it simply takes too long to tell its story.  The three movie arc was unnecessary.  Had REVENGE OF THE SITH been a standalone film, it would have been better received.

Other problems with this series: a lack of imagination and fun.  They are about as cold and lifeless as one can get in a supposed adventurous science fiction fantasy tale.  They also feature a stoic unimaginative actor in the lead as young Anakin, Hayden Christensen.

But I do like this third film, mostly because it succeeds in convincingly telling its tale of just why Anakin Skywalker chose the Dark Side in the first place.  In short, the Jedi were jerks to him, while the Emperor filled his head with flattery.  Most of the film is uneven, but the final reel is the best part and well worth the wait.

 

6. STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

Completely unnecessary movie in the STAR WARS canon, notable mostly for Christopher Lee’s presence as Count Dooku, and Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the increasingly tragic Padme.

 

7. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

I know, a lot of people love this one, but I’ve disliked it since I first saw it at the theater.  Following the masterful EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, JEDI is clunky in its story telling, struggles with pacing, and doesn’t come close to capturing the awe and magic of the first two movies.  When the film should have been reaching new heights in its tale of light vs. dark, it instead reverts to cutesiness, introducing us to huggable Ewoks, who do nothing but take away valuable screen time from Luke and Darth Vader.

star-wars-phantom-menace-darth maul

Darth Maul, one of the few good things about THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).

8. STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

My least favorite of the series.  Did we really need an entire movie about Anakin Skywalker’s life as a little boy?  In a word, no.

Notable for Liam Neeson’s presence as Qui-Gon Jinn, and the very cool villain Darth Maul.  Yep, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul are by far the two best characters in this movie, and they are both promptly killed off.  Shows you how good this movie is.

And there you have it.  A quick take on the STAR WARS movies.  I’ll be sure to update this list shortly to include the latest movie, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017).

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Frances McDormand Outstanding in Powerfully Relevant THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

0
three billboards - frances mcdormand

Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2027).

Can a bad cop be a good man?

Can an officer of the law who spends most of his time drunk and has been known to harass people of color have redeeming qualities? Can a woman whose teen daughter was brutally raped and murdered become so hated in her community that she receives death threats because she takes aim at the local police department for failing to solve her daughter’s case?

These are just some of the serious and complicated questions posed in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), a comedy drama by writer/director Martin McDonagh, a movie that does indeed produce frequent laughter but is driven by its serious themes, which by far are the best part of this film.

Mildred (Frances McDormand), an embittered coarse woman, spies three decrepit billboards on a lonely road on the way to her home and immediately hatches the idea to use them to combat the local police department.  She seeks out the young man Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) who runs the company that owns the billboards and pays for her messages to be put up, three simple statements which pretty much accuse the local police department of not doing enough to find the person who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.

Both the police department and the community as a whole take offense to Mildred’s billboards.  The very popular Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) tells Mildred that his department has been doing all they can to solve the case, but some cases are harder than others, and so far they just haven’t caught a break.  He tells her the billboards are not helping, but she ignores him.  To further exacerbate the situation, Willoughby has cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live, and with a wife and young children, he’s got the full support of his community, which makes people lash out at Mildred even more.

Most effected by Mildred’s actions is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an oftentimes drunk officer with violent tendencies who is not above using threats and physical harm to get his job done, and he does indeed threaten Mildred.  But Willoughby defends his officer, claiming that deep down he’s “a good man.”

Mildred could give a care.  She only wants her daughter’s case solved.

With such a serious plot, you may be wondering how this can be a comedy.  The comedic elements come from the quirky townsfolk and from Mildred’s over-the-top way of dealing with them, from using a dentist drill on her dentist after he criticizes the billboards, to firebombing the police station.

The laughs also come from the language, which is vulgar and crude.  Everyone in this town, both young and old, talk like they’re related to Deadpool.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI tells a quirky story that gets better and stronger as it goes along, and its told well by writer/director Martin McDonagh.  His script is sharp and incisive with some truly biting humor, and even better, its serious themes like police brutality and vigilante justice are handled deftly.

Frances McDormand gives an outstanding performance as Mildred.  She has the weathered, determination of an army drill sergeant, and you can see in her drawn face the deep pain of having lost her daughter.  She’s particularly wounded because she and her daughter argued the night the girl was killed, and this was the last conversation she had with her daughter.

Sam Rockwell is equally as good as Officer Dixon.  At first, he makes Dixon someone you pretty much can’t stand, and Chief Willoughby’s comments that he’s a “good man” ring hollow.  But as the story goes along, and we learn more about Dixon, and we see that in spite of all his shortcomings, he really does want to do the right thing, his character becomes more sympathetic.  Rockwell is terrific in the role, and it’s saying something that he’s able to take this very unsympathetic character and give him significant depth to turn him into a guy who later in the movie the audience actually roots for.

And later when Dixon reaches out to Mildred with information about her daughter’s case, it’s not only a testament to the solid writing that this moment is believable, but to the two powerhouse performances by McDormand and Rockwell.

Woody Harrelson enjoys some fine moments early on as Chief Willoughby, but as the movie goes along the story really focuses more on Officer Dixon than the chief.

Other notable performances include Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife, Anne, and Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby, the man who owns the billboards and catches just as much heat as Mildred for allowing the messages to go up.

Lucas Hedges, who was outstanding in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) and who we just saw in LADY BIRD (2017), has less to do here as Mildred’s teen son Robbie.  Clarke Peters enjoys some fine moments later in the movie as the newest police official in town, who, unlike Willoughby, has no patience for the volatile Dixon.

John Hawkes is sufficiently slimy as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, and Samara Weaving is equally as good as his innocent, clueless nineteen year-old girlfriend Penelope. In one of the movie’s better scenes, Mildred looks like she’s about to verbally thrash Penelope in front of Charlie, but instead she recognizes Penelope’s innocence and she simply tells her ex-husband to be good to the girl.

The cast also features some familiar faces.  Peter  Dinklage has a small role as James, a local who has a thing for Mildred, and veteran actor Zeljko Ivanek plays the desk sergeant.  And in a very creepy performance, Christopher Berry plays an unsavory stranger in town who later becomes a person of interest in the case.  Berry was similarly creepy in a couple of episodes of THE WALKING DEAD as one of Neegan’s scouts, before he was blown up by a bazooka-wielding Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus).

Come Oscar time, you may see Frances McDormand as one of the final contenders for the Best Actress award for her performance here as Mildred.  She’s certainly one of the strongest draws of this movie.

But THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI also tells a relevant and powerful story and does so while interspersing genuine laughs throughout, thanks to some quality writing and directing by Martin McDonagh.

Its story remains genuine and true to life. There are no easy answers or quick fixes or nice neatly wrapped endings.  It’s full of people who mean well but screw up all the time, and others who don’t mean well and get away with their crimes. In short, it’s all rather ugly, but as in life, the things that matter don’t exist in a vacuum.  They’re oftentimes surrounded my muck and slime.  You just have to navigate through the mess to find what you’re looking for.

Or as is the case in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, you have to go above the muck and plaster your intentions on billboards, igniting a fight that you have no intention of losing.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE EXORCIST (1973)

1

Exorcist_powerofChristcompels you

I’ve always considered THE EXORCIST (1973) the scariest movie I have ever seen.

It’s not a jump-scare suspense thriller, nor is it a special effects gore-for-gore’s sake bonanza, although sure, it does contain very graphic scenes that are certainly not for the squeamish. THE EXORCIST is the scariest film I have ever seen because of the story it tells.

Its story of a young girl possessed by— not just a demon but the Devil himself— is so disturbing, that even if you’re not religious you are sure to be moved by it all.

It also doesn’t hurt that everything that happens in the movie seems so convincingly real.

THE EXORCIST not only gets the storytelling right, but it also gets the Catholic Church right.  So many films featuring demons and exorcisms mess up the religious aspects of their tales, often featuring priests who aren’t realistic at all and exorcisms that resemble something out of a Steven Spielberg film with special effects galore.

Not so with THE EXORCIST.  The movie has always seemed authentic and real.

When THE EXORCIST first came out in 1973, I was only 9 and too young to see it.  I first saw it on HBO when I was in high school, probably around 1980, and it was late at night, and it really got under my skin.  I still remember to this day going to bed, closing my eyes, and being unable to erase the image of Linda Blair’s possessed face from my mind. Her eyes kept staring at me.  Long into the dark night and wee hours of the morning.

THE EXORCIST pretty much tells three stories which all converge in the film’s third act. The main story features prominent actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who’s having trouble with her 12 year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair).  Regan has been acting strangely, and when things get worse and really bizarre, as in her bed shaking and her body becoming grotesquely mutilated, the doctors are at a loss and eventually advise Chris to seek religious guidance and perhaps request an exorcism.

The second story concerns Father Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest who is guilt ridden about the death of his elderly mother, since he was never there for her.  Chris turns to Father Karras for help, and he tries to steer her away from an exorcism, saying instead that she should rely on the medical profession, but when Chris breaks down saying she has taken Regan to countless doctors, and they failed to help her and actually suggested an exorcism, she feels there is no one to help her daughter, and so Karras agrees to see Regan.  After he does, he changes his tune.

The third story revolves around Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) who we see in the first few minutes of the movie in the middle east seeking out religious artifacts.  Merrin is an exorcist who has had experience fighting demons, and eventually the elderly priest is called in to perform an exorcism on Regan, setting up the film’s exciting climax.

THE EXORCIST is one of those rare horror movies where nearly everything works.  It’s no surprise then that THE EXORCIST was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.  It didn’t win, nor did Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, or Linda Blair, or director William Friedkin, who were all nominated that year.  But it did win two Oscars, for best adapted screenplay by William Peter Blatty,  based on his novel, and for Best Sound.

The acting is phenomenal throughout.  Ellen Burstyn delivers a powerful performance as Regan’s mother Chris.  She goes through such an emotional roller coaster ride trying to save her daughter, it’s both moving and terribly painful to watch.  It’s certainly an Oscar-worthy performance.

Jason Miller is just as good as Father Karras.  He’s the epitome of a struggling Catholic, a priest who questions his faith and his own actions as a human being.  He needs every bit of strength and faith he has when he eventually has to confront the demon inside Regan.

Likewise, Max von Sydow is just as convincing as the elderly Father Merrin.  It’s an impressive performance, mostly because von Sydow was only 44 at the time, and he is completely believable as a much older man, a testament both to his performance and the superb make-up job by Dick Smith.

Of course, there’s Linda Blair as the possessed Regan, certainly an exceedingly challenging role for a child actress.  But she was helped immensely by Mercedes McCambridge who provided the memorable voice of the demon inside Regan.

Director William Friedkin made a horror film for the ages.  The best thing about THE EXORCIST is that it doesn’t play like a traditional horror film.  It plays instead like a serious drama, only its subject matter of a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon is horrific.  It’s incredibly disturbing.

The “horror” scenes in THE EXORCIST are legendary:  Regan’s head turning completely around, the green “pea soup” vomit,  the infamous masturbation scene, and the words “help me” on Regan’s stomach.

The film is chock full of unnerving images, from the subliminal flashes of the white-faced demon to Regan’s monstrous stare.

The sound effects are just as ominous.  It’s one of the more innovative uses of sound in a horror movie ever.

And I’ve always loved the scene where Father Merrin first arrives at the house, in the fog and creepy lighting.  It’s never been referenced as an influence, but Friedkin’s shot of Merrin’s arrival has always reminded me of Terence Fisher’s shot of Peter Cushing entering the windmill at the end of Hammer Films’ classic THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) thirteen years earlier.

And who can forget the line, “The power of Christ compels you!” spoken by both Father Merrin and Father Karras during the climactic exorcism scene.

If you’ve never seen THE EXORCIST, it’s a must-see movie for all horror writers. It will continue to haunt you long after you’ve watched it.

It’s the stuff that bad dreams are made of.

—END—